Mill River Revival Mapped Out

Paul Bass PhotoThese out-of-town smart guys saw something here that lots of New Haveners don’t always notice: Stuff’s still “made in New Haven,” much of it in a quietly humming district bordering the Mill River. The duo helped the city create a logo and a new plan designed to have more stuff made there.

Officials Wednesday unveiled the plan as well as a “Mill River District—Made In New Haven” sign designed to greet visitors at seven strategic points around the emerging commercial corridor.

Those signs will help people see what consultants Tim Love and Kevin Hively (left to right in the above photo) saw: An under-the-radar district with invisible boundaries that has 3,000 people working to build zinc-topped countertops (at Boldwood) and tomato sauce (Palmieri) and precision jet-engine parts (Space-Craft) and to sell plumbing supplies (Bender’s) and (Grand) paint and and floor tiles.

They also saw some old buildings “with good bones” that go unused—but could be retrofitted to house new employers that build on the industry that already exists in the area.

The two consultants helped prepare a plan for the Mill River District on behalf of city government and the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation. (Click here for an earlier story about their work as they got started in 2011.)

Their “Mill River District Planning Study,” released at a press conference Wednesday, would give form and a strategy to the district, some 206 acres which largely straddle the Mill River. The district is roughly bounded by James, Humphrey, Hamilton, and Chapel streets.The plan marks a departure from familiar city-planning models: It builds on existing small-scale development rather than imposing a social engineer’s own vision for what would work best. And it puts a priority on maximizing industrial jobs rather than tax-base-building residential gentrification near a waterfront.

Who said you have to live in China to work in a factory?

Beyond “Eds & Meds”

“New Haven’s economy is witnessing a revival of its industrial base and will need state-of-the-art infrastructure and economic catalysts to properly encourage this growth,” the 111-page report begins. “[Mill River] represents one of the last remaining places in the city with large parcels of underdeveloped land and buildings able to capture the commercial and economic growth in the region.”

Allan Appel PhotoThe report’s prescriptions tend toward some small-scale public improvements and zoning changes on the part of government, as well as some experiments borrowed from other cities.

The report envisions streets with angle-in (rather than parallel) parking, complexes where small start-up businesses share equipment, “stormwater parks” to handle new climate change-sparked coastal zones. It envisions new zoning laws that allow more “hybrid” stores or restaurants that front factories or food-packing plants; and that enable people to live alongside small modern light-industrial shops that neither pollute nor make noise.

The one price tag in the report comes at the end: a suggested $5 million in public improvements over five years. These include $70,000-$85,000 in pedestrian improvements (curb ramps and extensions), up to $450,000 in sidewalk and landscape improvements on Grand Avenue near Hamilton and East, the “storm-surge solutions,” and “striping for street parking, shared lots and biking.”

City economic development chief Kelly Murphy and Mayor John DeStefano hailed Wednesday’s announcement as a counterpart to another big event this weekend: the groundbreaking at 100 College St., a new 11-story home for Alexion Pharmaceuticals that will begin filling in the downtown Route 34 Connector mini-highway-to-nowhere into a growing biomedical district.

“This is as much a landmark direction as Alexion,” DeStefano declared.

Here’s what he meant: Everyone hears about the new natural-sciences companies fueling growth downtown and at Science Park. But, despite the popular wisdom, more traditional conventional factory jobs haven’t all left town. Thousands remain. And the Mill River District can support thousands more.

Albeit with a modern twist.

High Ceilings, Expectations

American factories can’t really compete with China for large-scale factories focusing on high-volume mainstream products, argued consultant Hively, from the Rhode Island firm Ninigret Partners. (In fact the Mill River district has one such story to tell: The demolished Simkins recycling plant, whose owner moved the business to China in 2006.) They can compete for the “fashion risk” sector—specialty products that go in and out of style within four to eight months. It takes that long for an order to go to China and return home, he said. Specialty foods, clothes, glass products “with a certain creative flair” can all do well here, he said.

So could, say, a print specializing in 3D printing (that sci-fi-like new technology that lets your computer turn out, say, a gun, using digital code to make physical objects).

He made the remark while standing in an expansive first floor of a newly remodeled factory building at 20-26 Mill St., a block from Chapel Street and Criscuolo Park.

The space officially went on the rental market Wednesday.

The building’s owner, Steve Bernblum, had Ken DiStasio’s (pictured) West Haven remodeling firm spend eight months cleaning and repainting and rebuilding the interior of the 24,863-square-foot former factory—for the first time since its 1929 construction, he said.

Bernblum said the building began life as a plate-glass factory. Later gold screws were made there for medical use. A half-dozen metal companies formed a partnership to do electroplating jointly for their businesses, but then fought among themselves and never got the enterprise off the ground. That’s when they sold it to Bernblum in 1988. He ran an archival storage business there, before selling the business three years ago.

DiStasio’s crew had to wash and prime and paint all the beams and the ceiling, clearing almost a century’s worth of dust. It filled in large patches of the floor with concrete slabs. It put in new wooden fixtures, all new sheet rock.

Now the first floor, with its high ceilings, is ready for a new manufacturer; those ceilings are a selling point because of air handling systems required by modern workplace safety rules, Hively said. The higher ceilings also enable manufacturers to pile boxes higher, a plus because the rise in real estate prices has put floor square footage at a premium.

The upstairs, with shorter ceilings, is geared to office rentals.

“I almost want to start my own internet start-up so I can come in here,” Pedro Soto (at left in photo with Bernblum and his daughter and business partner, Julie Bernblum) said as he marveled at the panoramic river and harbor views during a tour of the upstairs space Wednesday. Soto is a Mill River District stalwart: His family runs Space-Craft, which has 43 employees making precision engine parts.

“Tech Shop” & A “Mercantile Food Hub”

The report envisions three parts to the district’s evolution.

One is an “industrial village” with “live-work” spaces and light industry. The city would seek to steer more small-scale manufacturers and tech start-ups to buildings there, partly with the lure of a “tech shop” where they can share the cost of shared manufacturing equipment. (The same idea the ill-fated electroplating partnership had in the building Steve Bernblum eventually bought.) The consultants looked to industrial spaces that housed clusters of creative start-up types in Brooklyn, Seattle, Portland, and Providence as models.

A second part of the vision: an urban antidote to Home Depot. The planners envision the city knitting together existing home-improvement stops like Bender Plumbing and Reclamation Lumber and Creative Stone and Tile with pedestrian street improvements, improvements to storefronts, and “pop-up” (an omnipresent liven-up-cities adjective these days) kiosks and carts to fill in abandoned or underused spaces between buildings and in storefronts.

Third, a “mercantile food hub” would develop by stitching together existing food producers (like Lindley Foods, La Michoacana Tacqueria, Palmieri Foods, Jamaican Coffee Roasters) with newer outlets as well as enhanced retail tie-ins. Plus a marketing effort to draw in the tourists.

The district has more than enough parking (2,121 spaces) but not enough coordination to make people realize that, the report argues. It recommends shifting some of the surface lots to new locations, and maximizing street parking by having cars park at an angle in front of stores rather than gobbling up horizontal spaces.

Finally, it envisions not building on some waterfront land, like that China-bound former Simkins site, but rather preserving it for public use and absorbing overflows from the Mill River. It also envisions “seasonal hoophouses and agricultural plots” on some of that land.

The report speaks of zoning changes in only general ways: The need to update rules to acknowledge that much modern manufacturing doesn’t create noise and smog, so you can have people living right by the spot without a problem, for instance. It calls for zoning changes that make more “live/work” and “live/make” spaces possible, more retail mixes with industrial plants, and more maritime uses for spots along the Mill River. City Hall’s Murphy (pictured Wednesday) said she expects to have specific zoning proposals to submit to the Board of Aldermen later this year.

Much like the industrial gems buried in a district most people haven’t noticed, a planning-philosophy gem is buried on page 63 of the new Mill River District report, a passage containing an argument about economic development not often found in reports issued by government or private-sector planning agencies. Titled “The Economic Threat of Gentrification,” it reads:

“Today many of the industrial buildings purpose-built in these segregated districts are no longer compatible with large-scale manufacturing operations due to the limitations of building design and construction. Increasingly across the country, prewar industrial buildings with ‘character’ are being converted to residential lofts, commercial space, and boutique product manufacturing spaces. Despite this trend, which is helping to bring energy and jobs back to depopulated urban districts, a balance must be struck between the desire to preserve these buildings through gentrification and the need to protect industrial properties that can support more intensive manufacturing employment. Within the Mill River district, larger parcels are available that can serve as future job centers for the City.”


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posted by: Atwater on June 20, 2013  8:35am

Finally, a development plan that makes sense and could actually lead to real substantive growth in New Haven. Small and medium industry is a fundamental aspect of a healthy economy. New Haven has a history of industry and it can once again become a model for how the nation can reinvent industry and manufacturing.

posted by: anonymous on June 20, 2013  9:54am

Atwater, while it’s nice to have a mix of old buildings with startup space, the low-density “industry” you envision could be easily accommodated in neighboring towns, like Hamden and West Haven.

Any sustainability principles would dictate that our city center should be reserved for intensive, high-density uses linked to local transit - large-scale mixed-income housing developments, housing towers, and larger companies or institutions. The demand isn’t fully there now but it definitely will be in 10-20 years.

posted by: robn on June 20, 2013  10:24am

Open web joists weren’t mass produced until the early 20s so its likely that that this building lost its roof at some point (maybe ‘38’). Anyway, the dirt’s probably less than 100 years old.

posted by: Atwater on June 20, 2013  12:52pm

@anonymous: The problem with the idea the sustainability principles that you promote is that they rely solely on the premise that one or two large institutions would anchor the development of the community. This is a nice sentiment and surely attractive to the “new urbanists” but, it is not going to lead to a substantive growth, in fact what it will do, what it is doing, is creating a huge gap between the well off and the working poor, with the middle class basically evaporated. As the gap grows the centers of wealth within the city become little more than gated communities, the poorer sections become slums, or, as some Democrats would like, state funded and state run housing projects.
The only way to protect the republic is to protect the ideal of self-reliance and economic responsibility and accountability. The only way to empower all of the people is to create an environment which fosters a productive economy of manufacturing and industry. New Haven was once such an environment and it could be again. To simply dismiss the idea seems to smack of elitism and a fatal myopia which will ultimately doom the majority of people to a life of poverty and/or dependence on the state. It would be a grave mistake if the city’s leaders fail to develop Mill River and other areas to accommodate small/medium industry. This city, this nation, cannot continue within the silly fantasy of a self-supporting service economy, at some point the fantasy will fade and we will be faced with a very bleak reality.

posted by: Stephen Harris on June 20, 2013  6:29pm

This report hits the nail on the head. We need to promote and support many small to medium size businesses. In fact, every state will need to promote the resurgence of local and regional manufacturing and even urban agriculture of all sorts. It creates jobs for Americans and diversifies local and regional economies. A diversified economy is better able to handle recessions. Cities and regions that get ahead of the curve will be the winners.

The globalized economy is time-limited. It can only run on cheap energy and the clock is ticking. Conventional oil is in decline and fracking for gas and oil is only a stop-gap measure.

As to zoning: Kelly should throw the ordinance into the harbor, I’ll even row the boat. Plugging holes isn’t a long range solution. Hopefully the new mayor see the wisdom is developing a modern code.

posted by: Stephen Harris on June 20, 2013  6:36pm

@ Atwater,

New Urbanism doesn’t promote the idea that large institutions anchor the community. It promotes just the opposite. See:

posted by: Stephen Harris on June 20, 2013  6:39pm

Let me clarify.

I agree with Atwater’s comments except the assertion that New Urbanism promotes large scale industry as the back bone of communities. It doesn’t.

posted by: anonymous on June 20, 2013  7:27pm

Page 30 of the plan is most telling.

Three photographs of streets that are designed to be five times wider than necessary, showing use by buses, trucks, and speeding SUVs, respectively.

One photograph of a bicyclist forced to use the sidewalk, with Dick Miller’s new “bike lanes” and “sharrows” covered with debris, and almost completely unusable in the face of the pictured SUVs speeding by at 50 miles per hour.

Zero pedestrians.

Our built environment is policy expressed (literally) in concrete.  Until the city hires a few progressive policymakers, engineers and planners who can correct the type of thinking that has led to what we see here today, most of this area will continue to rot and shed jobs and tax base.

posted by: Atwater on June 21, 2013  8:15am

@stephen harris: I would contend that the “New Urbanists” would not be able to push their agenda without the support of one or two large corporations. New Haven is a perfect example. The hospital and the university support the boutique atmosphere of downtown because it does not interfere with their institutional vision of the city; this probably applies more to the university than the hospital. Also, because the university owns a lot of property downtown they stand to gain financially when they support high end retail corporations (Urban Outfitters, Apple, etc.) and high end rental developments. Whether they are conscious of it or not the “New Urbanists” play along with this scheme. Without Yale (hospital or university) the city would not be as it is today, especially downtown. The “New Urbanists” vision for dense, pedestrian friendly, urban communities is not economically feasible without the support of at least one large corporate anchor (i.e. Microsoft and Seattle, IBM and Atlanta). This is evident in the story of the failed Ninth Square development, Yale was expected to be part of the discussion, they (Yale) are always part of the discussion when it comes to downtown development. Until we begin to abandon the old way of thinking and begin to reincorporate small and light industry then we will always be beholden to the moneyed elite and any “progress” we make will be superficial and hollow.

posted by: Stephen Harris on June 21, 2013  1:18pm

@ Atwater, 

We’re not on opposite sides. We both would like to see a broad mix of loca/regional businesses.

Where I think you’re wrong is in likening New Urbanism to an economic model. It’s no such thing. It’s an urban planning model. Read through the charter. It’s all about arranging blocks, streets, and buildings in a compact, mixed use way.

posted by: Atwater on June 21, 2013  1:45pm

@ stephen miller: New Urbanism is an economic model because it seeks to build a community (city) according to a very specific economic paradigm. The phrase “mixed use” gives it away. New Urbanism seeks an amalgam of small, service oriented, businesses scattered within neatly planned city blocks, plazas and forums. It is an idea that completely dismisses the very real need for actual economic sustainability. As stated, in another NHI article, a service economy does not create wealth it just circulates it. Also, a service economy, without corporate subsidy from say a Yale Corp., would not last long as the workers who staff the shoppes, cafes, etc., would not make enough money to actually live in the very nice cities that they work in. High end retail and high end rental complexes require a fairly large base of well to do customers, that’s why Yale is so essential, it supplies the well paid customer, i.e. doctors, faculty, administration, etc.
In my opinion there is nothing new about “New Urbanism” it is simply the re-cloaked elitist idealism that once provoked the yuppie exodus from the city to the suburb. The idea of a neatly planned space to live, for a very specific demographic of people.

posted by: anonymous on June 21, 2013  1:51pm

Atwater, to have small companies where people can live and make stuff in the same general area, you need large institutions. The reason we still have a lot of small manufacturers here is because we once had large manufacturers such as Winchester, Olin, Sargent, etc. 

My comment was more about energy sustainability. If you want to save energy and money, and subsidize the automobile industry less, then you need to have density in the center. Less intensive uses, such as garages where people can make small products, can be accommodated in places like Hamden or off the Boulevard.

The city center, which includes the Mill River area (other than the parts that flood), should be reserved for intensive manufacturing, office, services, and residential spaces. A mixed-use environment with these things would be nice.

posted by: Stephen Harris on June 21, 2013  3:51pm

@ Atwater,

Pay a visit to The Congress for The New Urbanism at to read what it’s all about. You won’t find anything elitist.

posted by: abg22 on June 24, 2013  3:45pm

You will never have a truly thriving and environment-friendly, public health-friendly, economic development-friendly Mill River District without a successful intervention at the English Station site, which is a weapon of mass contamination smack in the middle of the Mill River and River Street MDPs. If the Ball Island bulkhead gets corroded by rising sea levels, all hell could break loose. That’s the elephant in the room nobody wants to discuss.